Commentary

Congress Has Failed Our Students on Gun Violence. What's Next?

Mourners gather at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Mourners gather at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
—Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS

It's time for the Education Department to step up on school safety

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“Have a great day at school!” These should never be the last words a parent speaks to their child. Yet, for more than a dozen parents in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, that is what happened. Those last words represented a moment in time that will never be repeated.

Unfortunately, the script for this tragedy is now all too familiar to educators, families, and students. A system struggles to care for a troubled student, lax gun laws allow military-style weapons into the hands of civilians, a deadly shooting is followed by thoughts and prayers, and then we go back to our lives until the cycle repeats itself. This needs to stop. Parents should never question if their children will be safe at school. Teachers should never worry that they’ll have to jump in front of a student to save a life, and students should never be forced to cower under desks as bullets fly overhead.

It has been nearly 20 years since a nation watched in horror as Columbine unfolded, and yet no comprehensive gun control measures have been enacted to prevent a similar massacre. In those 20 years, we have seen students and educators gunned down at Virginia Tech, Umpqua Community College, Sandy Hook Elementary, and countless other places of learning. In just the first 45 days of 2018 there have been six school shootings in the United States according to Education Week. No educator, child, parent, family, or community should experience the pain caused by these horrific events, and now is the time to take action.

"It has been nearly 20 years since a nation watched in horror as Columbine unfolded, and yet no comprehensive gun control measures have been enacted to prevent a similar massacre."

In the days following these tragedies, many turn the conversation to mental health. It’s a conversation worth having, but tackling mental health in America doesn’t solve our gun problem. In 2013, I testified on children’s mental health before the House Appropriations Committee in my role as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education. We called on Congress to provide better tools for educators to identify risk factors, better school-based mental-health services, and stronger partnerships with community mental-health professionals. We submitted a $50 million proposal for a new initiative to help schools create safer and more nurturing school climates, and a $30 million plan to provide one-time state grants to help schools develop and implement high-quality emergency management plans. Congress once again failed to act on sensible solutions to help students.

However, the U.S. Department of Education can still take action. To better train teachers and principals on the social and emotional needs of students, it must reconsider its proposal to zero out Title II and Title IV funds. It should make new investments for research in social-emotional learning, and it should reinvest in the School Climate Transformation Grants, Project Prevent and SERV grants, and Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students state and local grants. Doing so would not only make our schools safer and protect students from gun violence, but would provide U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos an opportunity to lead across party lines for the betterment of America’s children and highlight the need to address mental-health issues in our schools.

For years there has been a robust national dialogue around mental health, and solutions have been offered at the state and federal levels, yet some members of Congress continue to block common-sense proposals that tackle mental health. There are disjointed actions—members continuing to vote for decreases in health-care spending while simultaneously calling for more action to address mental health. President Donald Trump took this approach the day after the shooting with a tweet focused on mental health, but the tweet falls just short of the one-year anniversary of a law he signed to overturn a gun regulation which made it more difficult for those with mental illnesses to acquire guns.

Less than a week ago, the U.S. Department of Education proposed eliminating a slate of important programs, including a $400 million grant program which helps districts and schools with mental-health-awareness training, school-based counseling, student safety and violence prevention, and bullying and harassment prevention. Now is the time for us to shout, “Enough is enough!” We can no longer accept elected officials who lack conviction and the moral courage to protect our students, teachers, and communities.

After the shooting in Florida, I received a sobering email from an educator from Portland, Ore., whose frustration epitomizes what I think many educators are feeling at this time: “As a principal, my goal is to a create a joyful, meaningful, and safe learning environment for each of my students every single day. At this point, however, I feel stuck about how to impact this current reality in American schools.”

Just like this principal, educators want change. They want schools and communities to be safe for all kids, and they want us to make the best decisions possible so that this goal is realized. Now is not the time to give up hope. Our students deserve a voice, and we must continue to advocate on their behalf. In the absence of congressional action, we must take a stand for kids. First and foremost, we can all support candidates and elected officials who back increased funding for counselors, social workers, and better supports for emotional health.

We can support candidates and elected officials who advocate common-sense gun legislation, especially focused on background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and the mentally ill. We have a moral obligation to remain focused on ensuring that all students are safe. If not now, when? If not us, who?

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